Abandoned Places of Empire Movers

Yesterday, I helped my son and two other members of my church move a formerly homeless person into permanent housing.  We traveled from the mind and soul numbing suburbia of the DFW metroplex into parts of the urban Fort Worth area.  I had a fascinating conversation with my son about being able to see when and discern when we had crossed into the abandoned places of empire and what an abandoned place of empire is.  I explained to him that of the things his preacher father does, this simple work, like moving your college roommate into an apartment, done in the abandoned places of empire, is for me personally, the holiest thing I’ll do this week.

So what’s an abandoned place of empire? It’s a place the economic engine has chewed up and spit out like the hull of a sunflower seed.  The world is full of such places, the are the casualties of capitalism, globalism, consumerism, imperialism, and narcissism. They are the result of the pursuit of profit at the expense of people.  America has littered the globe with them including the urban areas of her own homeland.

One of the more compelling movements in the American religious landscape during our generation is the New Monasticism.  It grows out of the younger evangelical and emergent church movement, but has many applicable and attractive elements for liberal religion.

The “12 marks” of New Monasticism are:

  1. Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire”
  2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us
  3. Hospitality to the stranger
  4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation
  5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church
  6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate
  7. Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community
  8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children
  9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life
  10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
  11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
  12. Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life

How Might a religion, a living tradition, with a deep foundation in James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones stake its marks in a New Monasticism? What might be some challenges?

The first mark is actual relocation to abandoned places of empire, the places that the empire has left behind as refuse.  I only know of one loosely affiliated Unitarian Universalist congregation that has been planted in this way: A Third Place in Turley, OK.  My own congregation is a polar opposite. My congregation is not yet ten years old and was planted in the heart of the DFW metroplex.  By the time the congregation was big enough to rent space, it rented in one of the wealthiest (per capita) city or towns for its population size in America.  I don’t related this to pick on my own congregation, to make it feel guilty, or to set it apart, but because it is incredibly normal in this respect in terms of our denomination. We tend to hold progressive religious and political values, yet live and work in (and thus support) the heart of the empire. To relocate to the places the empire has chewed up and spit out is a tall order.  Much spiritual work is required before this happens.  This first step is engaging and living and working and ministry with, not to, the people who live and work and study in abandoned places of empire.  We do this by…

Engaging in and practicing marks 2,3 and 4.

People who are not ready to relocate to abandoned places of empire, may very well be ready to share economic resources with the most needy among us, extend hospitality to the stranger, and work to heal divisions of race in the church and community.   These things are right at the heart of the social justice ministry, the anti-oppression / anti-racism work, welcoming congregation work, green sanctuary work, immigration work and similar work many of our congregations now pride themselves on.  Taking up the new monasticism would require asking, how do we take steps to engaging these things that take us out of our culture and make us truly multi-cultural?  Do we have what it takes to not just invite people to join us, but venture out into the difficult places where others are at and place ourselves in increasingly vulnerable situations.

Marks 5,6, and 7 would need reframing for Unitarian Universalism. Moving past the specifically Christian language (remember your universal translator), to what do these marks point us?  Submitting to Christ’s Body, the Church. Well  It’s not about you, it’s about the community. We are at heart a covenantal community and that’s what this is about.  This is mark we would do well to practice more often.  Fundamentalist churches may ask the individual to submit blindly to doctrine or give up individual freedom to the will of God, but I don’t think is what we need here. What need to focus on here is the strength of the community.  Any community values, any virtues, are only valid within a community that agrees to uphold them.  This mark calls us back to that.   So that the common values don’t become a club in themselves (and how often do see “You’re not in right relationship” or “You’re out of covenant” used as a club?)   Marks 6 and 7 engages the community in intentional formation and nurturing.  Is there a plan for community life? Is there orientation? Does spiritual formation have any type of progression or is it always every person for his or her own self  and in any which direction?  Mark 7 encourages us to nurture the common life of the  community.  I see this as pastoral care in terms of having direction for conflict mediation, healthy communication and ways to revisit and renew the community covenant.

Mark 8 is about specific relationship in intentional communities. Unitarian Universalist communities would need to rework this to include many different kinds of relationships. Not only would people who choose to be single and celibate be welcome, if that is their choice, but all types of GLBTQ couples and families would be welcome.  For our communities, I suppose each community would have to make decisions about polyamorous relationships.

Mark 9 may or may not be negotiated in UU New Monastic communities, but I think it gets increasingly difficult to maintain community with people too widely dispersed.

Marks 10 and 11 deal with the type of environmental work and social justice orientation typical of most of our congregations so embodying this in a community would not be new. Being intentional about it might be.

Mark 12 deals with being intentional about a disciplined spiritual life. Some UU’s do this and some don’t. The difference in this type of community is that it would be expected that everyone is engaged in meaningful spiritual practices.

In places where the Wellspring program has been popular, The New Monasticism might be a next step for intentional living that goes beyond small group ministry.  The energy behind a commitment to live out our values in online forums such as UU Growth Lab makes me think we have many people out there who are ready for such a step.  What makes me sad is that once again as we move into the 20th century, our viable, liberal religious approach is late to the game and the real energy, the driving forces moving even the liberal, open minded among us on the spiritual journey is not originating in Unitarian Universalism.   Getting up and moving to abandoned places of empire is a radical idea.  You’ve got to think Adin Ballou would have loved it.  What places near you are abandoned? How can you engage them? What marks of the New Monastacism can you take up or take on?

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